The Moment…

Unknown

 

I had a moment today whilst teaching.

I was covering unseen poetry and using The Moment, by Margaret Atwood. Truth will out and it will declare than I don’t really like this poem, massively. It’s one of those poems that sounds like poetry and has lots of spaces that allow for deep and meaningful reflection. It’s okay in a satisfactory way and is definitely okay for writing about unseen poetry. If it was a choice, the poem would not be accompanying me to my desert island. I could not imagine endless moments of The Moment whilst the waves gently lap against the golden shores of my Time.  What I want from poetry is not quiet words of wisdom but unquiet meanderings that haunt my thoughts for year after year.

 

“You really love poetry, don’t you, sir?”

 

“Yes, I suppose I do.” Non-intentional dramatic pause. “Yes, I do.”

 

There are poets that have been with me for years and years. Robert Frost was one of the first ones to take up residence. Birches, where the trees are bent over after ice storms, Like girls drying their hair before them, After Apple Picking with the unwanted fruits abandoned to the cider apple heap, and The Road Not Taken  as a lament or celebration of choices people make in life. I am hearing the soft landing of a little horse as it makes its way though snowy woods and I am back there, not in the place I first read Frost but in his own land and mind.

 

Tony Harrison came along in my twenties and usurped others who would have claimed the throne. I first had his words thrust in front of me to read in a university seminar. I was asked because I was from Harrison’s neck of the woods, that soot covered piece of West Yorkshire that refused to scrub itself clean. My reading of his poem, Long Distance, fell flat on its iambic arse with my angst-ridden rendition. That moment became a source of personal embarrassment for many years. My reading aloud was dire. I stumbled over sentences unless I was in role and not ME. Once in the guise of another, I could make language take flight.

 

It took me no time at all to fall in love with the poetry of Harrison. It was my voice, although more educated, and it expressed my thoughts about a cultural past that would never go away. Harrison made my language grand. It wasn’t the hyperbolic extravagance of the theatre, nor the torturous stanzas of the comic. It was the language of my blood that stretched backwards whilst reaching ahead. It foretold of my oft times difficult relationship I endured with my Dad and family. The fact that my moving away was seen, by some, to be a betrayal of my culture. It mimicked my change of accent, change of interests, and change of self (whoever that may have been). For once, it was me speaking and standing, “agate, wondering about the world I was waking in and about my past all gone…”

That was when, as Dustin Hoffman would have said as Little Big Man, I went through my poetry phase.

 

Poetry, you see, is the speech of kings, You’re one of those Shakespeare gave the comic bits to, prose.” Thanks to Mr Harrison.

 

It is true that I was a pauper. My education was blue-collared satisfactory but nothing more. Everything about me was second-rate, yet I longed to be a prince. That was when poetry threatened to save me.

 

I had always been writing poetry and most of it was quite bad. I wrote a sort of sonnet to a girl in sixth form which I turned into a sloppy song. I sang it to myself before going to sleep at night but it didn’t do the trick. She ended up going off with a dickhead who had a microphone for a head of hair. Still I persisted. I wrote another song/poem about Jack the Ripper which claims that it was society that was responsible for his crimes. I remember the clichéd lines to this day and am glad that I never put it out there.

 

“You never put anything out there.

 

Guess which one of my wives said that. To stop you wasting valuable thinking time, I have to tell you that I have just the one. She was talking about this blog/book that I’m writing.

 

“Always up in your head and not down in red!” My poetry, berating myself.

 

Until you become accepted, all writing has the potential to be deeply embarrassing. Take this, for example. Here am I, hiding behind a screen of words, not even sharing what the digital world calls my profile with anyone. My wife and daughters are petrified that people will find out that it is me writing this self-interested drivel. Some of you already know who I am, but not everybody. Whenever I check the statistics for my posts, I am interested to find that many of you have checked out my ‘Profile’. There is nothing there, although it wouldn’t take that much detective work to discover the identity of the Masked Moaner. That to one side, I am now finding myself judiciously editing my posts in order to not embarrass or hurt anyone. My wife thinks that I could even be hurting myself and my ‘job prospects’ through my need to write and confess. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps the world has become so Big-Brotherly that everything is checked. Applications fall into three piles; Yes; No; Nut-Job. there is probably one dedicated to ME. Excuse me for a moment as I believe my own petard is calling.

 

“You are so brave writing that.”  

I am losing count of how many times I have heard that. There is nothing brave in doing what I am doing. My everyday madness is just that, EVERYDAY MADNESS. It happens to almost all of us, yet for some, like me, it actually becomes a defining part of the individual’s psyche. I cannot say that it was one thing nor another, this nor that, nature or nurture. What I have is this view of the world and of me in it. Most of the time, I am just rolling along, appearing like everyone else, normal. Then it hits. I see myself as an outsider, somebody who doesn’t fit, somebody who is not meant to be there playing his role.

“Role?”

My counsellor asks. She has stumbled on the missing clue and sees that, if she pursues this, there may be an answer. My use of ‘Role’ suggests that I have a belief in some grand design, that my existentialism owes more to the Elizabethans than to twenty-first century  philosophy. Perhaps the various manifestations I have seen along the way are only images of my own warped imagination and deeply embedded belief that I was supposed to do something special. Trainee psychiatrists will be having a field-day reading this.

 

‘Poetry’ the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’

 

Them & (uz). Tony Harrison

 

Yes, there’s the rub! I was born into the comic classes. We had this essential stoicism that helped us to ignore or just put up with it. Perhaps, after years of trying to do whatever I thought I ought to do, I just gave up. And then I found myself coming back to all those things that I had grown from. And it is poetry that has brought me back and will keep bringing me back to that state when the world was still new enough to be discovered and savoured. And Harrison guessed it.

 

Read and committed to the flames, I call

these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Caher d’un retour au pays natal,

my growing black enough to fit my boots.

 

On Not Being Milton.  Tony Harrison.

 

So, I live in a world that has not been created by some omnipotent being whose omniscience I cannot escape, but some bloke from Beeston in Leeds. My dad called them ‘Loiners’ (people from Leeds) and until Harrison I had never heard anyone mention that term. Now looking at the ‘Profile’ of said poet, I discover that he would have been of the same age as my father if my father had lived long enough. So, here’s to both of you!

 

 

We never really overcame our last obstacle

an argument, our favoured form of conversing.

I found it difficult to forgive. We argued,

a stream of frustration pouring over me

lava scorching my tongue as I spewed forth

your crimes.

 

Now, the eruption has passed.

The molten emotion has cooled,

but it was your ashes I would be

looking at. Your plaque, instead of tomb.

How do I ever speak to that?

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Me to my dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From This Day Forth (or 5th)

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from Facing North

God knows why of all rooms I’d have to choose

the dark one facing North for me to write,

Liking as I do air, light and views,

though there’s air in the North Wind that rocks the

light I have to keep on, all year round, all day;

nor why, despite a climate I profess to hate,

and years spent overseas, I stay,

and, when I start to pack, procrastinate.

Tony Harrison 

 

 

This is my first day of the rest of my life.

I thought I may as well have it before it’s too late. I can remember fifteen years ago and being in the preliminary stages of realisation concerning the years I had been collecting. My footballing skills had most definitely waned and I started to see more and more grey hairs appearing on my sideburns. I had lost a bit of umph and had started to worry about the chronic back pain that I was suffering from on a regular basis. That was the time that I was just wallowing, doing reasonably well at work but nothing so remarkable that I was flying. Perhaps, at that time, I still believed in what I was doing.

 

I was a dedicated teacher whose opinions others sought. I was also a huge bit boring, especially in company when I would gravitate towards subjects such as the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, or the state of education.  My best bits were when I suddenly launched myself into poetry, swapping between Tony Harrison and my own. It was as if the words gave me the power to see beyond what I had become. It was still pioneer time for education with a plethora of research fuelling the then inevitable improvements that would come in the form of better outcomes socially and academically. I needed a cause to fill my days and teaching, making a better society, was my metier.

 

Change is good. I have always enjoyed its new challenges and opportunities. Many would say that I enjoy change too much. “He never stays in one place for very long.” “What is he doing now?” “He can’t hold a job down!”  All of these are probably true.

No, definitely true.

 

I am a transient who enjoys the experience of experiences. Perhaps this is why I have lived such a full and varied life. Why I have done this, that and the other before coming back to this and that before moving on to the other again. A short while ago, I felt that my life was moving in a circle; the wheel of fortune with me as the hero, villain and eventual corpse. I am not so sure of this now. My life has very little structure. There is often some rhyme but not much reason. The only structure has been put in by the demands of my work, my wife and my children. Wherever my wheel of fortune is taking me, I am sure that there is nothing logical or predetermined about it.

 

Structure is perceived through retrospection.

 

Fifteen years ago, a couple of youngish male teachers died, one suddenly the other not so suddenly. Those are the type of moments that shake the foundations of certainty. They are the times you look at your own brief tenure and wonder how long is left. It’s like renting a house and never knowing when your lease is up. When these two guys died, I looked at my then young family and worked out how old they would be if I died around the same time. I have reached my calculated age and have had to add another into the calculation; my youngest arrived without warning or preplanning.

 

The breaking news is that I am not yet dead. As far as I can tell, I am still living, breathing and cogitating. There are a number of other things that life has deemed to be unnecessary for me to participate in such as football, being an object of desire and generally being successful. I am one of those old dads who is occasionally mistaken for a granddad, whilst out shopping in areas where parenting starts around sixteen. But I have got here. I am in the future and am still vital (ish). I suppose this is the moment when something happens to knock me off this mortal coil, just to make life seem full of irony and me full of shit. My wife hates me writing this type of thing. She thinks that it is naval-gazing nonsense which only the criminally boring would ever deign to read. Deep down, I probably agree with her, but I CAN’T GIVE UP. 

 

Yesterday was International Happiness Day; it said so on the radio. Yesterday was Monday. I wasn’t happy and could not bring myself to be so on any one of the entire twenty-four hours. I didn’t see anybody else, apart from the kid in my class, who looks like Ronnie Barker, looking happy either. If happiness is a gurn, he was happy.

 

There was once, at a New Year’s Eve party, this neighbour who put on a very passable chirpy cockney impersonation and asked me, “What’s not to be happy about?” Being a father of an anorexic daughter and being in loose possession of a failing career, I reeled off at least four things that determined why I should definitely not be happy. The fellow’s inane smile dropped and a slump was actually introduced into his demeanour by the time I had managed to get onto the government, the tragic nature of international affairs, and the essential fruitlessness of existence for sentient beings. He never asked me that question again, nor did he really ever speak again without being accidentally dropped within two feet of me without fair warning.

 

What’s not to be happy about on international happiness day? I wish I was a howler monkey.

 

According to Doctor Amit Sood, the author of The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness: A Four- Step Plan for Resilient Living, happiness is a habit. Some are born with it and some have to simply choose it. He encourages us to do strange things such as: exercising, reading, music, art, prayer, meditation and yoga. He doesn’t mention drink or drugs or even sex for that matter. I gather from my brief insight into this book that I was born miserable and have chosen miserable for every day of my life so far. He also mentions the famous 5-3-2 technique that involves making your first thought of the morning about five people that you are grateful to have in your life. For the first three minutes in the morning you should meet your family as if they were old friends rather than wreckers of carpets or bathroom spaces. The next time you see another new person you ought to send them a silent, “I wish you well.” Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy!

 

So Doctor Amit Sood (I call him Ami now, French for friend), I have put your wise words to work. On wakening this morning, after I had juggled with the cat, in a pretty serious hide and seek activity, before finally putting her out for a morning stroll, I looked at my wife as if she was an old friend who I hadn’t seen in ages.

“Good morning, old friend!”

She looked at me and rolled her eyes before telling me not to be so stupid; it was early.

 

Not to be deterred, I then continued to wake each of my daughters so that I could greet them as old friends. There was no response from one whose sleep would not be offended whilst the other just, “UHHHed?” and made sounds that suggested that I should give up being daft. I let the cat in and didn’t give her a playful little foot up the arse as part thanks for waking me two hours previously. I greeted her. She ignored me and yowled for some food. By the time the kettle had boiled, my resolve was starting to flag a little. Once the two workers -mugs of tea were ready for my wife and I to consume, over a general perusal of the previous day and its detritus, I took a Prozac and all was well.

 

I am officially living in the future for now. Each day is an unexpected delight. Each moment I spend is another step towards a destination that has not been predetermined by my upbringing, my IQ, or my fragile psychological wellbeing. The only problem is that other people don’t realise the fundamental shift in my temporal alignment. They are just going on as if it was yesterday.

new-dawnThis is my first day of the rest of my life.

 

 

And Now My Watch is…

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Game of Thrones (just in case you have slept for a number of years).

 

Kevin’s expression spoke of his problems with sleep. He was ashen-faced and his eyes seemed to have sunk into his head a little too far. I greeted him with a Monday morning cheer that went some way to being a grunt. His response was even more dismal.

 

What’s wrong, Kevin?

 

Kevin is like me. We are the wrong side of fifty. We have interests that provide our lives with enough of an additional spark to see us through most of the dark days. Like me, he has dismal squalls that sweep in off the sea and reduce his capacity to see beyond their temporary reign.

 

“I don’t think I’ll last the week,” he said.

 

I asked him why he felt that way, though I already knew.

 

“It’s just this, this nonsense. It comes for me every now and again. All it takes is a tiny pin-prick and then it’s gone.”

 

It turns out that the pin-prick was with a Year 11 class. Although he is a supply teacher, like me, we have been given examination groups. The school can’t find decent permanent teachers and have to resort to a couple of grey-templed types to drag the less academically able students through the final few months of their secondary experience. I have the lesser of the two groups but my students are not burdened with the indifference and arrogance that the slightly more able groups appeared to possess. In a moment of frustration, Kevin told me that he had lost it. Not a fully underpants on the head moment nor a screaming fit that would have be suited a banshee, nor one of my personal favourite “Here’s Johnny” moments.

 

What Kevin experienced was an honest response to kids who had learnt not to bother or to take any personal responsibility for themselves and their efforts. When accused of not preparing them well enough for a mock examination, he lost it and told them that he was in fact only a supply teacher and that, like me, we were not responsible for all their learning or lack of it. When he told the group that he didn’t like their acidic insinuations, he then explained that he had the freedom to leave at any moment he chose.

 

He may have said, euphemistically, that he really didn’t give a …., but I think he fell some way short of that. Whatever he said, did find its way back to the resident head of English and she gave him a little dressing down about the need to tread carefully around the children because many were vulnerable, very vulnerable. At this point I felt the pain in my heart from the imminent blood-loss.

 

I had a buddy moment with Kevin. I did the, “We’ll stick it out together” and, “We’ll get through this” (until at least Easter). I didn’t break into a Vera Lynne song nor did I launch into a damning tirade on the acceptance of poor behaviour and lack of respect from fragile kids towards equally fragile teachers. What I did was to feel empathy and not a little sympathy for a fellow traveller who was reaching the end of a long journey.

 

Like a soon to be written out member of the Night’s Watch, my journey is also ending. I have stood on the wall for too long watching the movements of the wildlings beyond. I have made forays into the wilderness and have glimpsed beings such as wight-walkers or executive headteachers or overly enthusiastic trainees. At the sight of these, I did not flee. Instead, I took up my sword and faced them; and lost.

 

And now winter is coming. I can feel something in my bones that is telling me that my fight is done. Just to rub that one into the marrow, my oddly nice Year 7s turned up for a lesson in moods that can only be described as psychotropic. Before the end of the session I had recorded behaviour marks for half a dozen of them. One boy, who I like, went back to his twittering and wittering and strange noises conduct whilst another jumped up from his seat, threw a bottle across the room and shouted at his erstwhile buddy before slamming out of the classroom. Another sat gurning and rolling his eyes whilst whispering conspiratorially to his associate on the desk they shared. At the same time, another yawned incessantly in an attempt to explicitly undermine everything I was trying to do. There were others, my maths isn’t that bad. The point is that you can’t get complacent; the wildlings are the least of your worries.

 

So, let’s take my ridiculously extended metaphor and examine it in the type of detail that will illustrate why this particular English teacher is about to go native:

 

  1. I do not love and have never loved my students. I like them, most of the time, but love is for loved ones. I also think that love is a little dangerous in modern day teaching.
  2. I do not always know who is in front of me in my classroom. Sometimes I struggle with names. I get some names confused with each other-Rachel and Ruth is a good example of this. I put it down to the Old Testament.
  3. I don’t always act the grown up in a classroom situation. Often, I am infantile in order to remind myself and my students that being a little daft is a decent mental escape valve.
  4. I don’t plan lessons. I don’t plan on paper at all. It helps to keep it fresh and interesting; for me.
  5. I know that students can do more but have often taken it upon myself to do more for them so that they succeed. I have stopped this now.
  6. I don’t stick with literacy programmes as I think I know better.
  7. I do expect the very best behaviour and am often disappointed by the rough fare that is served up in schools as a whole.
  8. I take myself too seriously and believe that the profession in which I work has become a joke. Four different coloured pens for marking?
  9. I am told to have fun but I can’t see that much fun in this job any longer. And, by the time I’ve got home, I’m too knackered to have fun.
  10. I think that the best pastoral care for the students who I teach is to help them become decent human beings rather than becoming products of an industrialised education programme.

 

That’s my confession, the one for now. It may grow by the end of this episode and I may be charged with treason or witchcraft or fornication with my own self-awareness. I showed it to Kevin and he thought the same. He laughed and agreed that it amounted to heresy. Its author was already well on the way to establishing a kingdom here on earth or in Hull or the home counties. He that sees the truth and believes that we ‘ought to spake it and spake it loudly’ on twitter or Facebook.

 

In the beginning was the word and the word was dog, because a dog is a man’s best friend, if you don’t have a cat. Both creatures are equally talented at licking their own arses and in times of a world-wide tissue paper shortage there is something to be learnt from that.

 

Jumping into the void is never an easy thing to do unless you happen to like that type of thing. I read an article recently about the rise of extreme sports. These, for the relatively uninitiated, are for those individuals who want to do something in their spare time that can have a very positive impact on their fitness whilst having a potentially negative impact on their physical wellbeing; or continued existence. Base jumping, bungee jumping, mud running, fire-breathing, budgie-smuggling are all examples of extreme sports. For the budgies, it can be a terrifying experience. For those others who take part, the thrill comes from doing something that is so far outside of their daily office-comfort zone that they release endorphins, inhibitors and anxiety. A good long, freezing, rain-sodden mud run makes you feel alive. And I agree. When you are doing all that, self-awareness floats off in a different direction and the mind has a moment’s rest.

 

But why only do it in your spare time? If it is work and our accepted modern-day lifestyles that are the slow suffocators of our society, then we need to change.

 

The madman speaks and he is quite convincing when he faces the mirror. He becomes a little less so when he is talking to his laptop screen. You see, on the other side of this is you and you may not be quite so convinced by my ravings. You are probably someone who has the same type of stoicism as my wife, who has watched me standing on the edge and threatening to jump into a new future for the past twelve months.

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She listens to my quiet assertions that there is something else that we should be living for and generally ignores them.  

Lovely, Dark and Deep.

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“So, when do you think you’ll be getting better?”

“At what?”

This is a conversation that I did not have with the significant she in my life. But, I have sought to create her in my writing as a sounding board. My wife is my touchstone and I rely upon her no-nonsense guidance in everything I do. Strangely, I think that she loves me. Not so strangely, I think that she somewhat despairs at me being me and the one that she chose to get married to. I don’t blame her.

 

“What does Happy look like?” asks my counsellor.

 

“Good question,” I respond after a while. “I have never thought of it like that.”

 

“If you don’t know what it looks like, how will you know when you get there?”

 

“Another good question.”

 

Happy looks like a Sunday morning run with your wife and daughters through wooded countryside. It involves getting out of bed and pushing oneself into suitable running gear and then finding somewhere nice to run. Trail running and the like are far more preferable to road running, as they provide old-stagers like me with something to look at and admire whilst doing one’s duty to one’s ageing frame. The empty nature of nature lends itself to a feeling of innate wellbeing, a rather clichéd oneness with the countryside and a love of relative silence. It also allows a family to bond.

 

Well this family, this Sunday, was not so much bonding as abandoning. Our eldest was doing a duathlon in Oxford with the university team whilst our middle one was remaining indoors to do homework and to check any social media that needed checking. My wife had had a wonderfully timed learning-walk goose-step itself into her last class of the day on Friday afternoon, so she was feeling that bed was a proper place to spend the rest of her life. That left me and our youngest. Yet, I was full of beans; metaphorical ones.

In the last week I had found somebody who I thought may have disappeared off into the kingdom of Someone I Used To Be; Me!

 

It came as a shock when I looked in the shaving mirror and saw my old self staring back. I hummed a little Frank Sinatra tune just to check and pulled a face. To cap it all off, I did my worst Godfather impersonation (the worst and the best are the same). Yup, it was either me or an extremely good imposter. I knew that I had lost myself some time ago and I was in the process of becoming accustomed to this new me, Prozac Dad.

 

Prozac Dad is calm, he floats, he avoids confrontation, he is not competitive and he is not demanding (certainly not in the bedroom region). Prozac Dad is essentially dead. He may look like a proper human being but his very essence has been sucked out and diverted into a container labelled, “Empty.” This is what my life has done to me. My life has conspired with major drugs companies in order to bring me to the point of zombification. I am a walker who chooses not to feast on the flesh of the living as my chemical inhibitors stop me from doing so.

 

If Rick Grimes was near me now he would be sticking a sharp knife through my ear and into the useless lump that was once my brain. Prozac Dad becomes Prozac Dead. But the other morning I glimpsed ME. It was the old imperfect me who had not learnt to apologise for everything that he fell short of. It was the ME tinged with acid and willing to pick people off in public settings with his social sniping. It was me who vented anger in the fashion of a cranky old volcano. More than all of this, it was ME who had started thinking that life, as he knew it, was not all fire and ashes in a landscape of burnt earth.

 

So it was ME who stood before the missus on that Sunday morning and demanded that she raise herself from her stress-induced slumber so that WE, as a functioning family, could take once more to the hidden treasures of the kingdom. My wife said, “Yes.” My youngest daughter shouted, “Yes,” but the middle said, “No.” As Meatloaf would have put it, “Two outa three ain’t bad.”

 

The weather was miserable. Early March rain was falling in a desultory manner across the land. Being the relatively affluent market town that our address had become, meant that already the roads and common lands were filling up with runners. The roads had the odd sprinkling of those demented cyclists who never feared the rain or snow or nuclear war.

 

We climbed into our family vehicle and I drove out into the nearby countryside. Oh, England how I do love thee? The countryside by us is quietly beautiful. The Wolds bring with them hidden valleys and woods along with the odd surprisingly serene village that exists just because it does. In situations like this, the old ME would luxuriate in the fortune of having all of this right on our doorstep. The new ME had not reached that state of hyperbolic-bullshit just yet. Nevertheless, there was a creeping sense of reunion happening. ME knows himself and would recognise himself from a distance of a hundred miles or more.

 

My wife was in the passenger seat still going through the possible scenarios that malicious fortune could throw at us. She was always able to summon-up the extremely negative possibilities that could, and most probably would, happen if we didn’t sort our lives out. One of these ended with me never being able to find paid employment ever again and us having to sell the house and live in a hovel somewhere in the least desirable areas of Britain. When we arrived at the beginning of our route, a beautiful spot in a wooded valley and next to an equally beautiful church, my wife stopped for breath. The three of us put on appropriate trail shoes and shuffled into our first hill climb.

 

Our daughter took to the incline like a bouncing mountain goat. She had an exaggeration of leg and arm movements that announced to anybody from any planet in the known and unknown universe that she was, in fact, running. She pelted away from us. I stayed with my wife and shouted to our little daughter to slow down. She turned and shrugged.

 

“She’ll soon slow down,” my wife prophesised.

 

A light rain was still falling but the temperature was not too off-putting. We were wrapped up for the weather and some thoughtful organisation had been so kind as to re-gravel the path on which we were now breathing heavily. I have done this run before and know just how muddy and dangerous it can become during and after rain.

 

“I’d forgotten how much I hate running,” my wife muttered.

 

“Yes,” I replied turning around to take a panning shot of the valley around us, “But this is beautiful.”

 

“I don’t know why I bother with this sport,” Sophie added. “I never seem to get any better.”

 

I have been going out running with my wife for a few years now and she has been making incremental gains. Nothing dramatic but that’s what ought to be expected. I have learnt along the way that she doesn’t take to any real form of conversation when she runs. She certainly has not taken to my form of encouragement such as, “You’re doing well,” or, “That was faster.” No, it would only be a very foolish man who would dare to utter such words as he would be unaware of the very real prospect of awakening the sleeping dragon. I was about to tell her that she was doing well when memory reminded me to bite out my offending tongue and to spit it onto the muddy ground.

 

Just as my wife had foretold, as we approached the top of the hill, there was our youngest bent over and sucking in air as if it was something that was going to run out some time soon.

 

Told you so,” I said.

 

I was just waiting for you two slow coaches,” she replied between long gulps.

 

We gathered ourselves and set off once again.

 

There is something Brigadoon-like about this valley and on a morning such as this with vaporous passages of light rain mixing with reluctant mists. Brigadoon was certainly in the forefront of my mind as we crossed a small road and set about climbing once again. We were taking it slowly, but surely, whilst attempting to give our daughter some much needed advice on her running style. The top and bottom of it was that she would waste more energy if she chose to follow a path of exaggerated limb movements and it was this advice that encouraged the first signs of exasperation towards her overly critical parents. Being good parents, we then attempted to run like our middle daughter, exaggerating arms and legs to Pythonesque proportions. She soon stopped.

 

We climbed the hill road and entered another wooded pathway to the right of it. This was trail running with the path being dry enough not to provide slip hazards which could cause ridiculously stupid injuries such as the one that my pointy finger had defined on a previous outing. That particular incident had precipitated the curtailment of her running for the best part of a year; and it was my fault. I am very careful these days to not point out areas of beauty or of interest, so the run along this wooded trail would be testing.

 

I decided to run at a pace that was faster than my wife. This is not a difficult exercise, but is one that I generally avoid because it defeats the object of running with her. I have ceased to be the German Tank Commander, forever driving my charges on, and have recently entered into a place of prescription-enhanced Zen. The truth is that I like this place. It’s calming and non-threatening. It’s a place that protects me from the everyday bollocks of a society that uses the said items as currency. So, there I am at a pace faster than my wife’s and I am feeling it – no pain just the wonderful sensation of running through a wonderful wood on a day of freedom.  But there are steps keeping pace with me from behind.

 

My first thought was that it was probably Sophie. She had found a spurt of enthusiasm and was intent on showing that she could do it just as well as me. However, when I turned to see her, it was my daughter who was racing up behind. Gone were the ungainly arms and legs and in their place was the image of a practised runner. I kept the pace constant and she kept constantly with me. We passed a woman walking a beautiful Labrador Retriever and the moment was improved. Up ahead were walkers, kitted out for a neo-arctic trek and somewhere ahead of them was another group of runners who apparently belonged to a club. Sharing the day with other individuals like this was an additional bonus that I had not expected. And my head? It was clear and present and I was reconciled to a feeling of contentment that had not been with me for some time.

 

Further along the trail, we waited for Mother. She was smiling. The clouds that had sat heavily upon her had gone, blown away like the cobwebs that had been hanging around us that morning.

 

With our breaths taking to the air around us, the woods guarding our sanctuary, and the run still waiting to be completed, we were happy.

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That is what happiness looked like.   

 

 

Day in Court

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Oh, woe is me.

The main problem with accepting that there is a crossed wire or two inside my head is that I accept it completely. Things go wrong and I point to the faulty wiring. My wife tuts, even though she has come to the opinion that I was never, ever, quite right. She has been reading some of the stuff that I have written and I have watched the dawning glow of realisation coming over her.

“Why didn’t anybody tell me that you were like this when I married you? I bet your family couldn’t keep their faces straight at the wedding.”

Actually, retrospect points me to all those faces that were not straight. Did she know what she was letting herself in for? Well, yes and no. So, here we are awaiting another car crash and it’s my birthday and I am feeling, well I’m feeling quite normal…so that’s the problem.

 

During the day, people have been wishing me well. My mother phoned up and wished me a happy birthday. My younger sister phoned and had a relatively long conversation. I put a fairly carefree tone into my voice realising that I was not being completely truthful. It’s difficult, however, to not kid yourself about yourself when you’ve been kidding yourself ever since you were born. My dad used to say, “Never kid a kidder,” but I must not have been listening.

To celebrate being another year older, I was going out for a cycle ride with my neighbour who is of the same age as me but is profoundly more successful. He’s a scientist working for a pharmaceutical company and seems to be always indifferently happy. I envy him that. His wife is the same and, having given up the rat race in which she was even more successful than her spouse, she now works at Tesco, stacking shelves whilst being happy. Oh, well. I could never imagine either of them falling into the psychological chasms that I have done. The bottom line is that I like these two, a lot. Decent people, the pair of them. So where did it all go wrong?

 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury:

Mi Lord, you will be aware that it was the day that was set aside to celebrate the time of my birth. I cycled with my neighbour and he beat me up a steep hill. The new me told the old me that this didn’t matter, even if I considered myself the far stronger cyclist. It did not matter! Shake that mother of all competitiveness from your bones, old man and just enjoy the ride.

So far, so good….

However what began as a seed of optimism, for my long-awaited return to normality, ended with me at three o’clock the following morning, head in hands, bemoaning my crossed stars and the ill-fortune that decided to make me an emotional and social half-wit.

Alcohol had been involved. Alcohol and a mitigating mixture of anxiety-quelling drugs. The drugs kept me calm and the alcohol made me think that everything would be alright, considering that I was a normal fifty-five year old enjoying the company of my wife and two lovely neighbours come to wish me a happy birthday. I can’t remember when the lights went out. I must have been still sitting and talking when something flicked inside. One moment I was providing non-mellifluent accompaniment to my fellow cyclist’s incredibly good guitar playing and the next I was turning over in bed, actually on top to the duvet, fully clothed, without a wife at the side of me.

 

I struggled through the shallows of waking, against the rocks of oncoming realisation and went in search of my missing spouse. I found her in our middle daughter’s bedroom, sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

I tiptoed tentatively in and enquired as to her health and wellbeing.

“You should be ashamed of yourself. You need a doctor or an AA group. What possessed you to start swearing at our neighbours like that?”

I was dumbstruck. My first thoughts were that she was having a vivid dream. We had been sitting, eating and convivially drinking to each and everyone’s good health and somehow I had fallen asleep, still fully clothed whilst my wife had wandered into our daughter’s bedroom and fallen asleep on the spare mattress.

“Swearing?” I managed, weakly.

“Yes, bloody swearing. Can’t you remember calling Howard a (at this point I have to apologise for the oncoming profanity) something? You called Julie a something too. In fact you said that they were a set of somethings. I’m surprised that they didn’t leave.”

It was no time to split linguistic hairs but I did.

“Something? You sure I said Something?”

You silly bastard, you really can’t remember anything, can you? You have got to do something about that drinking of yours in social situations.”

 

I had fallen, and how.  

Why did I never see it when it was standing there all the time?

It’s a few days later and I am back at work; Eastonsea on brown water. I have just spent almost one hour on what could at other times be called a pleasant journey but as a day’s teaching lay ahead of me, the journey did not get the four stars that it may have been expecting.

As I pulled up into the car park of the school, Kevin, another supply teacher was unpacking his car. We are both about the same age which makes us a set of dinosaurs in the corporate world of modern education. Neither of us wants to be here. We are jobbing teachers, paid on a daily rate. The difference is that Kevin just lives around the corner so his journey lasts for about ten minutes, if he gets caught in traffic.

I have been assured that there is traffic in this coastal town that is situated just beyond the back of beyond. I have never seen it but one of my students told me about how peaceful the town was unless it was rush hour. Horns blared angrily, windows would be wound down in frustration and harsh words exchanged. Then everyone goes back to sleep again.

 

Being only a couple of years older than me, Kevin has a similar outlook. We get through the day, each day at a time. We don’t take any of the bullshit as the fertiliser for our personal professional growth nor do we launch ourselves into the communal pool of positive social interaction. Kevin talks a lot more to our English colleagues than I do, but he is that type of decent chap whereas I am probably not. Although I understand the need to be positive, I find it almost impossible to be so. Lately, I have been considering the possibility of me spinning off the road, landing upside down in a ditch and not being discovered until some future civilisation decides to build a set of eco-toilets on my resting place. Just what would the archaeologists make of me?

DNA samples would show me to be well into my fifth decade. I will have been moderately healthy with no life-threatening issues. If, and I strongly believe that it will be possible, they could test for  a modicum of madness, then I would be a dead cert. The reason why I left such a quiet country road at such an hour in the morning was sadness. I had spent decades being sad. It was fact of my existence. Mix that with innocent socialising and a drop too much of the vino and you get regret. And a view point that sometimes couldn’t see the point. Long live my eco-toilet tomb.

Forget stray asteroids the size of football pitches. Forget super-immune viruses. Forget the rise of the walking dead. The end of the world as we know it could arrive one Sunday afternoon, post lunch, post BREXIT, and post Trump nuclear warfare. It could arrive in one overly long snooze in which the drinking classes clock off for ever.

So, this elephant is looking at me.

Do elephants have expressions? It’s looking at me with its two, too tiny eyes and its flappy ears. I am not sure if it’s come from Africa or Asia as there is no existing quota for such id-related apparitions; yet. So, I stare back at it and it speaks with the voice of my wife, who this morning pointed out the same beast in our bedroom. It was another of those deep morning conversations in which she discusses lots of the issues that she feels need discussing. We haven’t got over the neighbour thing yet, or, more to the point, we haven’t got over the elephant that was standing in front of our neighbours, excreting on the floor.

She started off with my pension. A low blow but perfectly understandable. I haven’t got much of a pension based on the false hypothesis that I would never grow old enough to need one. I am in need of one now.

I never listened to my dad when he said, “No matter what you think of yourself in terms of energy, when you get past a certain age, nature kicks in. You get tired. You become weary of the day to day routine. You stop believing that anything is possible. You even get a little fed up with yourself.”

My wife was right and I was wrong. Everyone who has ever spoken to me will agree with my comeuppance.

 

Forty came as a shock. Fifty; less so.

Now fifty-five has sat itself down at my table just when I thought I had it in the bag, but no! Fifty-five is the neither here nor there age. It’s being stranded on a beach as the tide starts to come in and you look out to it thinking that there is still some time to go before it reaches you, but as you are thinking that, you look around and see the safety of the sea wall and it is so very far away. No matter how fast you run, how hard you push yourself, the sea will always be that little bit faster and it will reach you before you reach safety.

“If I was in your shoes, I would leave me and get myself a better prospect for a healthy retirement. Honest. Look at me, what a fuck-wit. Nobody would blame you. In fact everyone would understand. Poor woman having to put up with him all of her life; when she could have done so much better. Even I think that.”

She gave me one of her you sad, pathetic gits looks and told me not to say stuff like that. I was being silly.

“Yes, that’s just the point. I am silly. I’m barking, round the bend and useless. I have an idea. Why don’t you just indulge my addiction and feed me a bottle of vodka each breakfast and another for supper. That way, you’ll only have a good eighteen months left of me. That’s a winner.”

My pension-pot ought to be placed beneath my bed for those really cold nights when a trip to the toilet is so unpleasant that it is almost out of the question.

“What are you going to do?” She asks.

In the past, there would have been a glass half-full response. It would have shot back at her in a toothy grin of self-confidence. It would have said something like, “I always think of something, don’t I?” But this morning the something was snatched from my sails before it had left port.

And I’m past thinking that your writing will provide a lottery win.” Ouch! “You just write and never send things off. How on earth are you going to reach an audience if it always stays in your laptop?”

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Point taken.

 

It’s probably a characteristic of types like me (and you, if you are reading this) that we prevaricate, procrastinate and generally prevent ourselves from doing things in case we truly fail. And the significant one is right. I am afraid of failure and my fear has been growing year upon year. My launching myself in different directions is not the work of an unfettered adventurer but is more concerned with the hastily constructed escape plans of one who sees his short-fallings as publically damnable and the possible source of ridicule. Now that I am in a corner, one that cannot be sidestepped, I don’t know what to do. My options have run out. I do not even have the simple choice of fight or flight.

 

Hoisted by my own petard.

I am looking across my teacher’s desk at a book I read to some students yesterday. It was World Book Day and one of the more vigorous and self-servingly strident female teachers, had organised for the department a chance to dress up as fictional characters to capture the imagination of those kids who wouldn’t read. I drew a big C on a piece of A4 and came as myself; The Old Man and the C. And, yes, I had to explain it. One guy thought that I had come as a character called ‘something’  and I could see his point. Others dressed as you would expect, projections of themselves. There was: Titania (queen of the  fairies); an unusually orange Fagin, which did cause me to have some confusion, my newly found buddy dressed as Arthur Dent whom none of the kids had ever heard of; then there was Daisy from The Great Gatsby. The latter was the young woman who sought to rule the department. It did strike me that all of us secretly consider ourselves to be something other than what we are. There were lots of kids dressed up as themselves and there were decorated classroom doors but no visiting writers. That bit seemed to have escaped any notice.

Oh, I am looking at the book again: Skellig.

I read Skellig a long time ago and it struck me as a wonderful work of literature. It was the type of book I wanted to write. Simple yet complex, a children’s book yet one that could reward an adult reading. It must have left a deep impression on me because it not only seemed to shape some of my ideas towards my own book but also foreshadowed the purchase of our current and most important home. So, as I look across my desk and see this book, by the wonderful David Almond, things begin to click.

Skellig is one of those premier children’s books that I think of as a threshold text. It is about a young boy who moves, with his family, to a new house in a different part of his town. The house that they move into is almost derelict and belonged to a hermit who died alone and unloved. The family includes the boy, his mother, father and little baby sister who is very ill. In the ancient garage, a place that should have been demolished, lives an old man, barely alive and dubiously human. It could be described as a coming-into-awareness novel, a book about angels, a work about hope or a modern fairy tale. It is all of these and something more. I decided that it was time that I read this to my class of Year 7s.

The class is a nurture group with a mixture of literacy and emotional issues. One lad, my favourite, keeps making loud squawking sounds and never fails to inform me and the rest of his group about how bored he can sometimes get during the lesson. I thought I would risk it, having heard a respected, and best-selling, kids writer say that reading to children and young adults is just as enriching as them having to read. I read Skellig and my class listened with intent.

It’s odd that an activity such as this so rarely goes on these days. It’s wrong that teachers have been dissuaded from fostering the love of the written word with their passion for the spoken word. Books, books, books; I love them. I love reading them. I love falling into the pages of somebody else’s world and forgetting about my own. I love the feel of books and I love the smell of them. I love to be around them and to open old ones to allow a name of the original keeper to reveal itself, or a note to fall out. I have an ancient collection of the complete works of Shakespeare which is nice in itself. However, what makes it special is the fact that the binding has been made out of some older tome. I have only revealed a little of it for fear of overly damaging either of the texts, but my glimpse at the hidden text revealed a sort of ledger written in a fine hand;  just one of the treasures of  books.

Anyway, I began reading Skellig to my Year 7s and I heartened by their response. Like my complete works of Shakey, Skellig has lots of hidden extras that reward the reading and the re-reading.

 

On a wet afternoon on the far-flung coast of East Yorkshire, it is a pearl of a read.

Reading for enjoyment. Reading because it is there. Yet there was something else that I came across as I was reading that book; a retrospective déjà-vu.  I hadn’t realised just how much of our lives had been written in the books belonging to others. Like the young boy’s family, we too moved into a house that had grown ancient around its hermit-like owner. He may not have died there, but we are pretty sure that something else had. And it was in our new-old-derilict-dwelling that I finished my first book. In The Piper another family moves into a run-down property only for the world to turn against them.

Reading and writing and huge coincidences or just plain copying, take your pick?

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I can see my dead father’s head shaking in disbelief; he was never taken by flights of fancy.

 

 

 

A Question of Doubt

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We had a moment yesterday, a potential throwback to the good old days of shouting and screaming insults at each other. Those days were quite infrequent but surviving, we tended to consider them in the same way that others look upon wildfires; they are an evil, a necessary evil that cleanse and revitalise the earth.

 

In the past, it would take a number of days to come to terms with our violent explosions of rage and frustration. The fire would have long since burnt itself out before we could repair the rents in our relationship, redefine the boundaries and then sweep up all of the physical debris such a broken painting, smashed glasses and hurt feelings. The thing with the wildfire is that it gives very little warning before it races up and sweeps past everything in its path.

In retrospect, we ought to have smelt it on the wind.

 

Every now and again we wake up with wrong heads on. Often these wrong heads are only attached to one of us at a time and quite frequently, we take the wrong head to a place of quarantine: work. Having a wrong head on in a place of learning is barely noticeable. Indeed, having a wrong head is a positive benefit. Unfortunately, wrong heads can sprout outside of school time and it is then that you must fear them the most. No, not just then, but it is when two wrong heads appear at the same time, it is an omen  and a recipe for disaster.

 

Thinking back to the near-miss, neither of us has any idea what caused it. From apparent calm, we moved through the stages of sharp remarks, raised voices and threats of divorce. Pre-lapse, I would have thrown myself willingly into the cauldron of madness and played my role as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

 

Yesterday was different. If a cartoonist had been present, they would have drawn me with dark clouds and lightning covering my head. There would have been a dramatic soundtrack, Wagner or some such like. And let’s not forget my strictly dance partner whose determination to bring about this terrible tango could not be faulted. At that moment, she would have appeared as Lady Macbeth, easily taunting my manhood and stabbing away with razor-sharp incursions that she knew would hit the spot. We were both so caught up in this perennial drama that we had forgotten our need for sanity, so just we just picked up the old script and delivered our lines.

 

As the crescendo was rising, at the very last moment before tipping into the void, I turned to look out of the garden window and stopped mid-performance. I spotted a number of tiny birds, tits or swallows, I didn’t know, but I watched them flutter from tree to tree, branch to branch, fly off and then return. Whilst caught up in their antics, I lost my lines. When I eventually turned back to my wife, it was not Lady Mac waiting for me nor was the caretaker staring at her. I smiled and returned my offering. The fire was extinguished.

 

Today we have woken up as near to normal as we are ever likely to get. We drank tea in bed, read the news about the world of fascist madness, shook our heads, ate toast, shook the duvet, and picked up our separate bedside reading books. We stayed in bed for hours and the girls seemed to get the message that this was one of those days that demanded nothing more than keeping one’s eyes open whilst maintaining a closed mouth. Reading, reading, reading.

 

It has always been an uphill slog to get our daughters to pick up a book rather than turn on the television. Apart from our middle daughter, our children have never willingly gravitated towards the consumption of literature. They prefer to cut out the middle-man and go straight to celluloid. Who needs to pour over hefty tomes when somebody can do the deed for you? In this, I think that I have been remiss. As a child, I was constantly being berated for having goggle eyes. My father told me that I would be blind by the time I was twenty if I didn’t stop watching the box and start reading. He may have added, blind and stupid, but I can’t truly remember.

 

Getting other people’s kids to read has always been one of my challenges since entering teaching. A report published recently has highlighted just how badly reading is perceived by adolescents.  The drop in reading ages, year after year, is nothing short of phenomenal. By the time students have reached their GCSE year, many have a reading age three years less than their actual age. As an English teacher, this doesn’t surprise me. Year after year the only reason for studying English is to gain a passport qualification. It’s become something of a driving test rather than a liberating adventure in thinking.

 

Anybody in charge of anything in education would see in me the husk of a once passionate educator who has now lost his way. It’s not about fluffiness, it’s about facts, measurable units of data, the hard stones of progress. I am the one who is out of sync. I am the one who would attempt to waste the valuable essence of time in a venture that promises little more than awareness and understanding. Oh, and empathy.

 

There he sits as bewildered as he was on that very first day. Before him the rows of tables that he sought to send into exile. They are there still, empty with so many faces from a life spent wishing, wishing for something better that came. The yawn of hope mocks his memories and smirks at him from the back of the classroom. That was where he had been sent for talking or daydreaming, for not displaying appropriate application to his task. But now he sits in the teacher’s chair and cannot veil the signs of wear and tear. Just when did he get old?  

 

My wife looks at me and there is sadness in her face. At some point, I represented something bright. My poetry days have long gone as has my belief in something good happening. That way lies madness, if madness does indeed lie. My thoughts are that it is a truth-teller in wolf’s clothing. Beyond anything else, it has been a companion. Doubt has dogged my steps through the years of desperate hope. Doubt sits with me now, as much a part of me as these hands are that are recording its presence. Doubt is consistent and must be listened to. If not, I would plunge head-first into whatever new adventure beckons.

 

Back in the eighties I understood my plight. Paul Theroux wrote The Mosquito Coast about an errant father who dragged his family across South America on some half-conceived plan to make ice in the jungle. It ended badly. He was too innocent and naive, “to be wary of spiders in the jungle grass.”

 

But spiders there were, yet my own dream of jungle ice has always failed to make me doubt.

 

 

 

 

 

Shuffle Off…!

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Talking to ghosts has always been a favourite hobby. It’s probably tied up with the Jesus complex. Ever since I was very young, I always prided myself on my ability to converse with members of the other world. Later in life, I developed a similar ability to speak with people who voted Conservative.

I can’t truthfully remember when I first began conversing. There wasn’t a seminal moment when I moved from being a cute little lad to being a conduit of other worldly mutterings, but as a kid, I was certainly not the norm.

“Our Matt has been talking again in his sleep,” my sister would report.

“Our Matt has been walking around in his sleep,” she’d tell our neighbourhood friends.

“Our Matt cried at The Song of Bernadette!”

Yes, fully-fledged member of the La La Club.

My big sister had a profound belief in my madness. She said I had mad eyes and kept shouting out in my dreams. She knew all about the Devil who came looking for me at night and she told as many people as she could about my nocturnal visitations.

“He says his prayers every night and then sings Walt Disney classics and Cliff Richard songs!”

Case proved!

 

The ghost thing is real. The house that we live in now has a ghost that haunts the new extension. My eldest daughter finds it almost impossible to sleep there after being visited on a number of occasions by footsteps on the other side of bedroom door, deep breathing inside of it and an inexplicable weight that pushed upon her during one unforgettable night-fest of happenings. On occasions such as this, my wife sends me into rooms to sense things out. Seeing myself as a fully-fledged phantom buster, I often try to reach out and communicate, but with no success. Is it the case that one loses ones powers the older one becomes, or is it that the faculties begin to fray a little at the edges?

My eldest daughter is not taken to fancy. She is a paragon of pragmatism. There is more of her mother in her than her father and I believe that they both view me with more than a little amused sympathy. “That’s your father,” my wife tells my daughters. “That’s Dad,” my daughters tell my wife. Dad is some type of benign presence these days. In the past he would wish to have been an Atticus Finch, but when the world closed in on him he would frequently become an Attila. Now, with the aid of medication and a fresh understanding of the edge of the precipice on which he walks, he has become a space cadet whose journey through the cosmos of family affairs allows him to drift for long periods of time, weightless, aimless and carefree.

He does, however, have moments when all the systems decide to close down. Take the party he was at the other week and the moment when the switches were flicked by his need to consider the existential nature of mankind at merriment. One man stopped to ask the forward-staring loon if he was alright and the loon’s wife placed a consoling hand around him to suggest that,

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Yes, he was alright…sort of.” His loon poses are becoming more of the norm, especially in company.

And the third person I (he) is using here?

It’s just another viewpoint.

 

The first ghost that I ever saw?

It was a grey lady. Yup, corny as hell, but real. I was working as a cocktail waiter at a restaurant in York. It was quite close to the Minster and the restaurant was on one of York’s oldest streets. Anyway, the bar area was on the upper floor of this restaurant, two floors up from the eating area. It was a cold winter night and the place wasn’t busy so I spent some time cleaning up my workspace. The whole building was genuinely very old-worldly with exposed timbers that really did date back to times long gone. It never did adopt the definite article of ‘Ye’, as in ‘Ye Olde Olde Place’. Couples enjoyed the experience because it leant some authenticity to the whole dining experience, even though it was essentially a posh burger-joint.

 

I quite liked my job, as the thought of mixing cocktails and getting paid for it made me a satisfied employee. Generally, I worked on my own up there, three to four hours at a time. That particular night promised drawn out monotony but I had a book and would often write poetry when it was quiet. Once, I wrote a poem on a napkin and still have it over thirty years later. Anyway, I heard the footsteps before I saw the figure.

 

I was expecting an early evening couple, all lovey and dovey. They would often visit the bar around this time, a few drinks, rather nice Americana food followed by a taxi back to one or the other’s and a night of unbridled entertainment not watching the telly. There was something reassuring in that bar, a sense that the world actually revolved around the basics of life. Instead of that, there was the figure of a woman dressed in a grey cloak with a hood. So, how did I know that it was a woman if she had her hood up? I just did. Anyway she didn’t turn towards me, choosing to take the long way around the bar area and dropping from sight behind a central column that would have been a chimney at one stage. She never reappeared.

 

I asked about my strange visitor and was met with the fairly straightforward reply from the owner that it was the Grey Lady whom I had seen. Lots of them had seen her. So my first face to face meeting with the paranormal introduced me to a rather promiscuously prominent phantom who had not especially chosen me to appear before.

 

One must remember that the lunatic has since, and prior to this, had many meetings with those from the other side. It’s become such a regular occurrence that I had become accepting of it. Deluded, many would think, absolutely bonkers.

 

But ghosts do exist. They are the people you once knew, the family you have lost. I have just been through a short period of being contacted by the dead. Old friends who had fallen into the void of time and had since disappeared.  I met a lad who once played football with me in a team of misfits called Independiente. We were a colourful and inclusive collection of individuals who had, or didn’t have, football skills depending your persuasion. We moved from available pitch to available pitch playing mud-filled matches before being made to move on again and again. We were like a travelling circus with a collection of long-haired hippies, social workers, long-term unemployed and teachers. We were a nice team who tended to read The Guardian and have a grasp of the fact that culture was not just something that could be taken from a one-night-stand. One of our most effective midfielders was widely known as one of the best ‘Lady of Spain’ performers in the West Riding. But it was another midfielder, a rather bright, funny and occasionally argumentative lad whose general rotundity never hindered his ability to make it up and down the pitch, even after having a skin-full the previous night. Unfortunately, this number seven is now dead.

 

It happens to us all: Facebook..

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One minute you are rolling along convinced that having cyber communications with the rest of the world is akin to opening your door every Saturday night to whoever may wish to drop in; then it changes; I joined.

 

Why? I do not know. But with my handful of friends, much greater than my real life acquaintances, I happily surfed the social detritus of other people’s lives. Sophie and I have an old family friend who in recent years has stopped being so much a friend as a source of entertainment and annoyance. The life of this person is fully documented on a tweet-like basis on an almost daily basis. Dirty washing is hung out along with freshly laundered items. I suppose that it is a way of connecting to a world that does not necessarily wish to connect with them. Have I looked at what I’m doing recently?

 

Anyway, being on Facebook is like standing at the side of a small stream that carries a variety of jetsam and flotsam which may or may not be worth salvaging. Faces pop up from the past like spirits from a different life and, unlike Scrooge, you get to pick which one you wish to communicate with.

 

Several years ago I saw our old midfielder.

 

I didn’t realise then that he was dying. I was a little confused that he seemed not to be working and, with his more rotund appearance, persuaded me he had successfully saved and retired before his time.  At that time, I had no envy of his otherwise enviable position of early retirement. I was still in the last flushes of a midlife renaissance that had seen me seize the day and find a little later-life success. All things end. The midfielder managed to smile through his posts and never let on that he was in the final stages of cancer. He posted photographs of his favourite beers, curry restaurant and football team. It brought me some warmth to consider that things continue. Then he died. The death thing was becoming a regular feature in my life. Facebook was its choice of oracle, its magpie and its throw of the dice. As far as death is concerned, predicting the future should be easy (pick a card, any card).  Whatever we choose, the outcome is the same. Our problem is that we deny its inevitability.

In five short years, lots of people who we have known have stopped breathing. I had spent my years with Sophie hearing about her favourite person from school who had got a foothold in the music magazine industry and had set about successfully climbing. She adored him and did the Facebook a Friend Request. At first, I thought that she must have had a thing for her old schoolmate; she did, it was a devoted friendship and complete admiration. This friend married in later life and became a father before he discovered that his time was reaching its sell-by-date. The cancer was pancreatic. He never drunk and regularly ran marathons.

 

My youngest daughter started making bracelets, Bands for Life, which she sold to raise money for his chosen charity. We were all pulling for him and then the thud of reality hit. With a child, who was just eighteen months old, a wife who adored him, a career that was prepared to wait for him, he died. His wife and child found him dead on the floor of the kitchen when they returned from an impromptu shopping trip. Nice touch, death. Your detached irony truly helps.

 

Just recently, old FB has thrown up two new cases of cancer with people who are ghosts of the old world. It seems that if you don’t want to trigger the unfortunate arrival of death to the doorsteps of those who you had known in a past life, don’t send a Friend Request.

 

So in the course of all of my soul-searching, I’m probably feeling that raking up the past is a futile exercise. The fundamental thing is that it has happened, we have happened and we can’t recreate it no matter how many photographs we post or how many old memories we share. There is a reason why our lives move on – they just do. We change friendship groups or, in my case, cease to have any real friends outside of my immediate family. We move on and move away so much so that we are often in danger of losing ourselves in the process. When people die, as they always do, we remind ourselves of the important things in life and make pacts that we shall return to them, but we don’t. Life is too pressing. It surges onwards without any particular place to go or reason to go there. And when it has caught us up in its whirls and eddies, we believe that it is fate. It was meant to be. Que sera, sera.

 

At this point, a bullish, bull-shitter like the ghost I used to be, would resolve to fight on. I would declare war on fate and rally myself for one last stand, one last hurrah! But I am strapped to the horse and it is gently plodding towards the jaws of that great beast and for all the flying cannon balls, heroic trumpets and poetic licence, I can’t get off. There are ghosts up ahead and behind, but I can’t dismount. Yet, the good thing is that I have been doing this for as long as I can remember and it no longer pains me. I could be on the sands at Bridlington, on a donkey with a bell, going up and down across the sands until the donkey’s handler decides to turn around and take me back to the beginning again.

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When I finally get off the donkey, they are all there waiting for me to start another chapter.